The Gospel In The Liturgy

23 Jul

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Liturgy.  In some circles, this word is anathema.  In a society whose pillars include pragmatism, individualism, and skepticism, the idea of set forms for public worship seems ludicrous.  It sends a legalistic chill down spine of many evangelicals.  Fears of people merely “going through the motions” cause us to distance ourselves from the set forms of worship that have greatly shaped Christianity (and American religion).  But must this be so?  And beyond that question, how does the liturgy (in this case the Order of Worship for the Evangelical & Reformed Church [1947]) reveal to, and point us towards, the Gospel?

A straw man argument could be made that all churches follow a liturgy.  Since the basic definition refers to a prescribed form for public worship, one could say that regardless of whether it is Roman Catholic or liberal Presbyterian, conservative Baptist or Emergent, they all have an order they follow.  This point is made by humorous videos that depict the “liturgy” of the modern church service.  However, whatever we may say about the set forms , or order, of modern church services, there are striking differences between them and what is commonly referred to as a “liturgical service.”  The difference is what I want to address, and I want to address it by answering the second question posed above: How does the liturgy reveal to, and point us towards, the Gospel?

Here is the Order of Worship:

Invocation to open the service (as stated at the beginning of this post) asking for God to meet with His people in this place.
Confession of Sins
Assurance of Pardon
Collect
(a prayer offered for a specific day/service)
Reading of Scripture
Hymn
Credal Proclamation (Apostles Creed)
The Prayers of the Church
Offering
Hymn
Sermon
Prayer
Hymn
Benediction (blessing given to the congregation)

In this liturgical service, we find God’s people coming to worship the Lord in praise for what He has done, and to come to Him for the grace needed to live as the salt and light of the world.

The people are called to confess their sins–to recognize their rebellion against the just judge and rightful authority of the world–and acknowledge their deserved judgment.  Yet, in light of their confession, they are reminded of Christ’s atoning work on the cross and victorious resurrection from the dead.  God’s people hear once again the proclamation of the Gospel and the promises of God to those who belong to Him in Christ.  They are reminded that their sins have been forgiven and called to live in accordance with their new nature (alive in Christ).

God’s Word is read, taking passages from the Old & New Testament, signifying their unity and importance for us today.  Hymns are sung in praise/thanksgiving for what God has done for us according to His grace.  Again, the Gospel is proclaimed in the Creed, and the body of believers profess their unity around a statement of faith.  Though they may disagree about issues of politics, social action, appropriate movies and music, they are united around the person and work of Jesus Christ and the work of the Triune God to redeem a people for His glory and their joy.

The needs and concerns of the church are made known in prayer.  Individual members, the local church as a whole, the community, and the world are lifted up to God.  Prayer for God’s children to walk in the good works set before them, and for the Gospel to be proclaimed where it not yet been proclaimed are presented to God.  In the sermon, God’s Word is expounded upon, pointing people to the meaning of the text, its orientation to the Gospel, and the ways in which this fuels our obedience to God. And finally, the service closes with the benediction (blessing), in which God’s people are sent back out into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit and covered by the grace of God, to be His ambassadors wherever it is that He has placed them.

So the charge may be leveled that such a service can lead people to go through the motions.  There may be some who merely recite the prayers, respond like robots to the minister’s petitions, and leave no different than when they arrived.  Yet, I would argue that there are many who come to such a service in need of the grace of God, and the reminder of the Gospel, presented in the liturgy.  In its various elements, the liturgy seeks to remind God’s people of the Gospel, His grace to them, and what is true of them in light of their newness in Christ (which fuels their obedience and efforts to do good works in love for their neighbors).  And to non-believers, the liturgy forces them to respond to the claim that man is sinful, alienated from the God of the universe, under His judgment, and yet presented with salvation from this judgment by the very same God, in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  He or she must either receive this in faith, or reject it in unbelief.

Admittedly, I have not answered all the criticisms made against liturgical services, nor have I addressed the fact that some churches may not conduct a liturgical service in the way in which I have described it.  However, I do believe I have provided a starting point for seeing the way in which the Gospel is found in the liturgy, and the way this service can revive God’s people as they continue their pilgrimage to the Celestial City, which is now invisible, but will one day be visible in all its splendor.

 

*Photo credit: http://www.openlibrary.org/works (The Church Porch: A Service Book & Hymnal for Sunday School by E.P. Dutton)

 

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3 Responses to “The Gospel In The Liturgy”

  1. kcmcginnis July 24, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    I remember going to my first Catholic mass, hearing the liturgy (with phrases like, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” etc.) and thinking, “This is so deep! How are these people not responding to all the truth being presented here?”

    This is a great post. Coram Deo church in Omaha did a great paper on their liturgy as Covenant Renewal (just search Coram Deo covenant renewal, it’s a pdf).

    Do you think some sort of liturgy should also be applied to small groups?

    • Tyler Helfers July 24, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Thanks for taking the time and for the comment. I will have to check out the paper that Coram Deo put out. In an ironic twist, by brother-in-law (who previously lived in Nebraska) told me about Coram Deo, so I am somewhat familiar with the church.

      With regard to your question, I wouldn’t say that some sort of liturgy “should” be applied to small groups. Even when it comes to Lord’s Day worship, I do not believe the only way to do it is to have a liturgical service. However, I see the benefits that such a service can bring.

      In small groups, community takes center stage in an intimate way that Lord’s Day worship cannot. It is an environment in which community is built, outreach can take place, and discipleship is done (in various ways). In light of this, I see it as a less formal time.

      I think what we need to do, rather than introduce some sort of liturgy into small groups, is to take the thematic elements of the liturgy and introduce them. This might mean being open/vulnerable about our struggles, asking for prayer, discussing Scripture, sharing a meal, singing songs, seeking out ways to lovingly serve the neighborhood, explaining our beliefs to someone who is visiting the group. In these things, I see elements of the liturgy that are good for small groups. I hope that is a helpful/clear explanation of my thoughts on the question.

      • kcmcginnis July 24, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

        You should definitely check out Coram Deo. I’m originally from the Omaha area but working in Iowa City now, but I visit CD whenever I am back in Omaha.
        Thanks for answering my questions. I haven’t really thought about it a lot, but I think a certain consistency in small groups – if you want to call it a “liturgy” – is good for replication. It’s a really good sign if, after having been to a group for a few weeks, a member could feasibly lead his/her own group if they wanted to.

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